Retrospect: Knitted together

The W. B. Davis & Son Hosiery Mill and the resurrection of Fort Payne

A photo from the late 19th century shows Fort Payne’s “Big Mill” under construction across the railroad tracks. Photo courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives & History.

Socks make for an odd kind of savior. But in Fort Payne, the manufacture of cotton-knit socks brought the town back from near total economic ruin. Detroit made cars. Huntsville built rockets. Fort Payne knitted socks, and lots of them, beginning in 1907.

In 1885, surveyors discovered untapped deposits of coal and iron ore near Fort Payne. Almost overnight, the news changed the fortunes of the small Alabama community. Wealthy New Englanders descended, enticed by the potential. They built the trappings of luxury, including opulent homes, an opera house and a 125-room hotel. Newspapers throughout the country pronounced the “boom times” of the northeastern Alabama hamlet nestled between the mountains.

Boosters hoping for a “Pittsburgh of the South” were met with bitter disappointment. Early indications as to the breadth of Fort Payne’s mineral resources proved inaccurate. After four years of meteoric economic growth, the boom bubble burst. The new residents left as quickly as they had come, leaving empty homes and shuttered storefronts. Once-crowded streets fell silent. Between 1890 and 1900, the town’s population fell by 51%.

It took more than a decade for the beleaguered town’s prospects to improve. In the early twentieth century a group of Southern textile mill investors founded there the Florence Knitting Co. They purchased an abandoned factory site along 8th Street as their headquarters.

Locals called the building the “Big Mill” and it loomed large, indeed, in Fort Payne’s history. On Oct. 16, 1907, the town’s newspaper heralded the early-morning beginnings of the new industry, which commenced with “the sonorous blast of a deep-toned whistle.” The roughly 75 initial employees of the mill were all women, with a smattering of men serving in supervisory roles.

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Within a few years, Fort Payne was growing once more, owing in no small part to the mill. The streets teemed with commerce and there were 300 new residents. Twice that number arrived in the coming decade. “Everybody is buoyant and hopeful for the growth of the town,” wrote one observer.  

W.B. Davis. Photo courtesy of Landmarks of DeKalb County.

Walter Bishop Davis, a partner in the Florence Knitting Co., took over the enterprise in 1915. Born in Virginia in 1860, Davis had successful textile concerns in several towns, including Chattanooga. He moved to Fort Payne and renamed the company the W. B. Davis & Son Hosiery Mill. Davis expanded the scope of production to include the dyeing and finishing of socks, as well as packaging them for purchase. At the time, the mill employed 300 workers and could produce 500 dozen pairs of socks each day.

By 1922 the number of employees exceeded 500. Like many Southern manufacturers, Davis endeavored to maintain a well-contented workforce, which led to fewer stoppages and kept labor union organizers at bay. The sock-makers enjoyed a company baseball team and an employee clubhouse, complete with a swimming pool, and broadcast nightly radio concerts, a rare treat in 1920s rural Alabama.

There was no larger knit goods manufacturer in all of Alabama in the 1920s. The company operated eight hulking industrial sewing machines and hundreds of knitting and ribbing machines. With a payroll exceeding $30,000, the mill was DeKalb County’s largest taxpaying entity, a fact which did not stymie W. B. Davis’ philanthropic spirit. He put forth the funding to pave many of Fort Payne’s streets and purchased the town’s first fire engine.  

A New York newspaper ad showed off some Alabama-made socks.

In the mid-1920s, the sock-maker’s son took the helm. R. E. Davis knew the textile industry well. He undertook a series of patent applications, which fostered a new era of expansion. In 1937, he received a patent for a “tubular stocking,” a sock with an elastic rib above the ankle. Two years later, Davis patented a “seamless, fitted sweat sock,” or cushion-sole sock, with a thickly knitted instep. The heavily absorbent fabric kept feet dry and prevented blisters. It was a timely invention as the nation prepared to enter World War II. The U.S. Army prized Davis’ new socks above all others and made them standard issue for servicemen.

By 1944, some 50 million pairs were made, most of them in Fort Payne. In October 1944, Davis & Son received the prestigious Army-Navy “E” Award for excellence in its contributions to the war effort. For the millworkers, the conflict was not merely a faraway notion. Just two weeks before the ceremony, Sgt. Curtis Newsome, a former employee, was killed while fighting in the North African campaign.

There were many postwar adjustments for the mill and the kingdom of socks it established. The number of workers began to dwindle as competition steadily increased. By the late 1950s, there were more than a dozen textile mills in DeKalb County. That number continued to grow. Davis & Son was sold to a holding company, caught up in mergers and acquisitions aplenty. Still, the mill remained for many years the world’s leading producer of its patented cushion-sole socks.

Workers at the W.B. Davis & Son Hosiery Mill circa 1920. Photo courtesy of Landmarks of DeKalb County.

The hosiery empire begun by Davis & Son outlasted the company by two decades. At its height in the 1990s, there were about 150 hosiery mills around Fort Payne, with an annual payroll of $150 million and nearly 8,000 employees who produced 600 million dozen pairs of socks a year — one out of every eight pairs of socks in the world. Locals rightly touted their “official sock capital” status.

How far the town had come over the course of the twentieth century, and largely thanks to socks. But all empires eventually fall.

Foreign competition and international free-trade agreements resulted in the closure of most of the mills by the second decade of the 21st century.

Socks are still made in Fort Payne — good ones, too — but in far smaller quantities. The “Big Mill” still stands and today houses an antique store and restaurant. Mill artifacts, including the steam whistle that heralded the arrival of the hosiery industry to the town in 1907, reside in the nearby Hosiery Museum. Opened in 2000, the museum honors the industry that transformed a busted boom town into a global manufacturing leader, one pair of socks at a time.  

Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka.

This article appears in the March 2023 issue of Business Alabama.

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